As anyone who has spent any time in Nashville knows, weather reports, especially winter weather reports, are often a hoax. They tell us it’s going to snow. We run to the grocery store and buy up all the hot chocolate mix and frozen pizza. Children, certain that schools will be closed, refuse to do their homework. We run inside, light a fire, and wait. No snow. Pretty much 95% of the time — no snow. Yet no matter how often this happens I always seem to fall for it, which is interesting, because when they say there’s going to be a tornado, I never believe them. Surely this has to do with the fact that I don’t like tornados, and I really like snow.
When I finished reading the manuscript of my friend Katrina Kenison’s book, Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment more than a year ago, the first thing I asked her was if she would come and read at Parnassus. I loved the book, which is about looking at the second half of one’s life and finding that we want less rather than more. Katrina, like so many of us, tries to find meaning and depth in a world of consumption and expansion, and she details her search with such wisdom I knew it was a book I wanted to people to read. She agreed to come to Nashville from New Hampshire in January, and then the seven members of her book club asked if they could come too. A road trip! A traveling book party! Eight brave New Englanders coming south for three winter days, and they turned out to be the three coldest, nastiest, rainiest winter days in memory. Hours before Katrina’s reading was set to begin we were promised an ice storm. It was pouring rain, 33 degrees. The schools had closed. The banks had closed. The mall had closed. And finally, an hour before her reading, the bookstore closed too. Katrina, as her subtitle suggests, has already had an apprenticeship in contentment, so she was fine with it. Her book club was cheerful. But Karen and I, along with everyone else who was working at the store that night, felt miserable. And the ice never came. Yes, like everyone else in Nashville, we fell for the promise of winter weather and closed the store for the rain.
So I ask you, if you have any interest in living a life of contentment, please come to the store and buy a signed copy of this terrific book. It would make me feel better about things.
It turns out the weather hasn’t been the only thing I’ve been wrong about lately. Sunday before last I read Joel Lovell’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine called, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” It was such a wonderful essay, and I am a George Saunders fan, so I immediately sat down and started reading the book (I had an advance copy at the bottom of a towering stack in my study.) And it was great, maybe the best book I’ll read this year, but it was also extremely post-modern and not so easily accessible. I doubted very many people would be up for the challenge. Boy, was I wrong. The book sold more than 20,000 copies in its first week of publication. Everyone I know wants to talk about it. It thrills me to think a slender book of short stories is capturing people’s imagination. I was in the store today and a woman came in and asked for that new book by George Eliot that everyone was talking about. Three of us said at once, “You mean George Saunders!” Of course, if George Eliot had a new book out that would be exciting too.
When Katrina and her book club were here, we all had dinner at my house and talked about books. They were such a smart group of women, so of course I was interested in what they were reading. At their last book club meeting, they had, of course, read Magical Journey, and they loved it. For their next meeting, they planned to read The Marriage Plot, by Jeff Eugenides, now out in paperback. I told them it was my favorite of his books. I asked them what they planned to read after that, and they said they were thinking very seriously of taking on Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon. I told them I had read that, too. They were impressed. If you happened to have read my last posting, you may remember I recommended Far From the Tree before I finished it. Then I went on and finished it. Really, reading Far From the Tree is what I did this winter. It took me forever. Not counting the more than 200 pages of references at the end (I did not even glance at them), the book weighed in at a very dense 700 pages. It took me two months to get through it. And while I’m very glad I read it, I frankly wish I had read it over the course of a year. I wish I’d read a chapter, put it down, read something else, and then wandered back to it later, simply because it was so much to take in. That said, I bought an additional six copies of the book while I was reading it because I kept thinking of people I wanted to give it to.
Far From the Tree is full of hope and compassion and identity, but at the end of the day it’s a pretty nerve-wracking reading experience, filled with stories that make you feel like you’re watching a car crash. The chapter on autism just about did me in. A friend of mine who listened to the book said he walked around New York with iPod buds in his ears, sobbing. (I’m doing a great job of selling this one, aren’t I?) The book is so smart, so beautifully written, so important that I had to stick it out, but at the same time I needed some straight-up literary comfort. I almost never read a book I’ve already read before because there’s never enough time, but I found myself sneaking off from Far From the Tree and picking up Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, one of my very favorites. Now this is an odd choice, cheating on a 906 page book with a 782 page book, but that’s what I did, and the balance worked perfectly. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a world all of its own, and a work of such profound imagination was just what I needed to get through so much stark and painful reality. I doubt I could talk anyone into packing these two as a boxed set, but I loved them together.
We’ve been on the hunt for the perfect novel for the February selection of our First Editions Club. If you don’t know about the First Editions Club, go back to the homepage of our website and look it up. It’s like Fruit of the Month Club, only better because nothing rots. Our December and January picks were both nonfiction, and we heard from our club members that they were ready for a novel. I put out a call to people I know in the publishing world and starting reading. After wading through some books that were not good, and some books that were not good enough, a friend recommended I get hold of an advance reading copy of a book called The Antagonist by the Canadian author, Lynn Coady. Jackpot. The entire novel is a series of emails written by the narrator to his old college friend. The book is smart and profane and funny (isn’t funny just the thing for February?) and in every way unexpected. It never went where I thought it was going. It always went someplace better. That’s the great thing about the First Editions Club – one month you get Jon Meacham or Louise Erdrich, books that could easily be called contemporary classics, then the next month you get something that you otherwise might never have found at all.
I saw in the store today that The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones is out in paperback. I know I’ve mentioned this one before but it’s so good. If you haven’t already read it, you should. It would be a great book for a book club too, lots to talk about.
I’ll close with a few thoughts on pornography. I heard on NPR that every employee at Random House got a $5,000 bonus this year thanks to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, and that the books have now sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. This makes me very happy. I’m happy to think of wildly underpaid assistants at a big New York publishing house getting to put an extra $5,000 in their pockets, and I’m happy to think that all that money means that Random House will be more willing to take risks on unknown authors because they don’t have to always bet on the sure thing. After all, the same people who brought you Fifty Shades are also bringing you the gorgeous and cerebral Tenth of December. Viva diversity! It’s also great to think of so many people reading, even if they’re reading what I have heard is very badly written porn. Bad books are the gateway drug to good books, which means that people who read a Fifty Shades book may someday reach for something better, but people who read nothing simply read nothing. So come in and get a book. We don’t care at all what book it is. Have a peppermint pattie, play with a store dog, congratulate the fabulous Andy Brennan on becoming our new floor manager. We’ll be very glad to see you.
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Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Scribner, 11/2012
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Vintage, 4/2012